Long Beach exploring ‘sanctioned encampments’ to address homelessness

Long Beach homeless services officials are in the beginning stages of studying the possibility of having a sanctioned homeless encampment in the city, similar to those found in other West Coast cities where a select number of unhoused individuals can set up shelters and tents to spend the night.

Though there is no proposed policy as yet, the city’s Homeless Services Advisory Committee recently took up the issue, and future discussions are planned. Many details, including where any potential encampment would be located, are unknown.

Any final decision to move forward on such an idea would be decided by the City Council.

Usually, city departments or a community-based nonprofit would oversee the encampment, often referred to as a tent city, which includes providing toilets and showers.

Seattle, San Francisco and Portland have already adopted a handful of these sanctioned encampments and some have been in place years before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Paul Duncan, Homeless Services Bureau manager, led a presentation during the Homeless Services Advisory Committee meeting on Oct. 6 to show committee members what other cities that adopted this idea are experiencing.

An increase in people coming to the city’s Multi-Service Center for help throughout the pandemic is a tell-tale sign that more people are experiencing housing uncertainty despite the lack of a homeless count taking place this year, Duncan wrote in a memo accompanying the presentation.

West Coast cities have created sanctioned encampments to respond both to the needs of people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity.

Duncan’s presentation showed images of rows of tents set up in designated areas. In many of the images these encampments were located in an empty lot and were fenced off.

Duncan said the camps are potentially low-cost ways to provide unhoused people a safe place to stay where they could be in contact with homeless outreach workers.

He added that it could be more cost effective to accommodate a space where people bring their own tents as opposed to spending millions of dollars on a new, permanent shelter.

“It could be beneficial and would allow us to try something else,” Duncan said.

James Howat, a committee member, said something new has to be done for homeless people in Long Beach.

“For me, it’s recognizing the homeless situation. We do not have enough houses to house people,” Howat said. “I think it’s a much more realistic way.”

Sanctioned encampments have been debated among homeless activists and have been at the center of some controversy, according to Chris Harring, assistant professor of sociology at UCLA and postdoctoral fellow at Harvard.

Harring, who has published multiple studies on encampments and policies that cities have enacted to address homelessness, said those zoned encampments that are supported in good faith, helping those experiencing homelessness rather than simply corralling people, are most likely to yield positive results.

A survey he conducted in 2019 of about 600 unhoused individuals in San Francisco found that 60% preferred sanctioned encampments. Just over 40% of those surveyed who were in a sheltered environment also favored sanctioned encampments.

“People prefer the privacy of their tents as opposed to congregate shelters,” Harring said. The camps offered safety, the ability to keep pets and partners and there was no strict curfew, Harring added.

One concern Harring shared surrounded over-policing of encampments that are not recognized as designated camps for homeless people.

He said Oakland opened 100 tough sheds to offer them to homeless people. While 50 people were able to get inside the community, those who could not and stayed in tents around the community were heavily policed.

Susana Sngiem, Homeless Services Advisory Committee chair, said more presentations and study sessions are planned for future meetings concerning sanctioned encampments.

The commission’s next meeting will be Nov. 3.

“We are still researching encampments and have not made a decision on [the committee’s] stance on sanction encampments,” Sngiem said. “Our meeting in November is when I hope to gain more clarity on this.”

Has homelessness increased in Long Beach? Most agree, yes

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